Speech made at the unveiling by Michael Foot in The Gay Hussar restaurant in Soho of Rowson’s gallery of caricature portraits / by Rich Hobbs

The Gay Hussar is possibly one of the greatest and certainly one of the most

famous eating places in London. For more than fifty years, this small

Hungarian restaurant just south of Soho Square has been the haunt of

politicians and journalists and, during the tenure of its legendary founder

Victor Sassie, provided the venue for plots, subplots, wild scenes and other

encounters which proved to have far wider historical significance than the

average meal. During the 60s, the whole of Harold Wilson’s Labour Cabinet

would lunch there, while towards the end of the decade the notorious serial

fellationist and left wing Member of Parliament Tom Driberg [see Francis

Wheen] tried to persuade Mick Jagger to stand as a Labour MP during a

surreal evening in the second floor private dining room (known ever after as

the Tom Driberg Memorial Suite). Bevanites conspired there, as did

Tribunites later on; editors were hired, deals stitched up, plots were hatched,

foreign secretaries* were threatened with physical removal, and it’s even said

that Tony Blair was first persuaded to enter politics on one of the plush

banquettes on the ground floor [see Tom Pendry]. A Great Book needs to be

written about the history of The Gay Hussar. This isn’t it.

Instead this is a collection of 60 caricatures I drew at the The Gay Hussar’s

over a period of around five years, and now perhaps I should explain myself a

bit more clearly. Sometime early in 1999, around midnight, on the stairs

coming down from the said Tom Driberg Memorial Suite, I made a pitch to

The Gay Hussar’s manager, John Wrobel, that I should draw his famous and

infamous patrons, as an enduring record of this restaurant’s place in the

History of the second half of the 20th Century, once these portraits of eminent

figures of past, present and future importance were hung up on the restaurant’s

wall. The deal would be that I’d draw these characters from the life in

realtime (their lunchtime) in exchange for one free meal a pop. I’ve always

liked the idea of cartoon reportage, the thrill of getting out to the story, rather

than just reflecting and reacting to the news hunched at home over my

drawing board. Moreover, I liked the bohemian feel of my proposal. Like

Toulouse Lautrec, I’d sit starving in the corner, wheezing consumptively and

scribbling away for my supper, sipping occasionally from a small glass of

absinthe at my side. (Actually, the closest I came to the absinthe was when I

drew Jack Jones and Rodney Bickerstaffe one Mayday, when they were

drinking absinthe and champagne, but there you go.)

Apart from my free meal, the terms were quite strict. First of all, the subjects

all had to have previously patronised the restaurant, so there was no question

of just packing the wall with David Beckham or the Pope just because they

happened to be passing. Having got my subject, it was then my plan to

produce the kind of immediacy in caricature that Cartier Bresson achieved in

his photographs. This was what made the gig interesting, and made it entirely

different from all the other cartooning and caricature I do on a daily basis.

And to that end I did no planning, no research, didn’t practice beforehand, and

didn’t want the subjects or victims to "sit" or pose in any kind of conventional

way. Instead, I was after a kind of fly-on- the-wall, or possibly fly-in-your-soup

caricature, the better to capture the real essence of the person.

This of course meant that the subjects were moving all

the time: chewing, talking, drinking, often obscured from my sight by passing

waiters or their freeloading mates. That made things difficult enough, but

added to that the restaurant can hardly be said to boast the clear, pellucid light

of, say, St Ives. Indeed, I drew Mo Mowlam and Sir John Mortimer up in the

Driberg Suite in almost complete darkness.

So, I was drawing moving targets in the dark, and quickly. Each of these

drawings, from beginning to end, took me an average of 45 minutes. Then, to

add to my problems, after the heightened stress of creation would be added my

wages, a large portion of mittel-european carbohydrate, which would grip my

heart all afternoon like a chain-mailed fist, to which would also be added, as

often as not, a few drinks with either my victim, or John Wrobel, or both,

leaving me to totter home far too late. Indeed, on one such afternoon my old

friend Peter Oborne, [undrawn: see under Peter Preston] now the political

editor of the Spectator, said to me: "Rowson, you will never be truly great

until you seek to emulate the simplicity of Christ."

Things were getting out of hand. On top of being compared unfavourably to

the Son of God and getting fat and drunk (but of course not getting paid), there

was the inherent danger in presenting the finished artwork to the victims of

my visual mugging for them to sign and endorse as a true representation of

themselves, which was another essential part of the deal. Most of them

winced; most of them clearly hated the whole thing. Lord Longford said his

drawing was like mortification of the flesh; Alastair Campbell, before I’d even

finished, yelled across the restaurant at me "You won’t be able to stop

yourself making me look like a really bad person!" to which I replied, "I draw

what I see". I’m still not sure if Julia Langdon has quite forgiven me. Many of

the people I’ve drawn were, once at least, my friends. Sometimes, however,

I’d be confronted with some prominent individual where I was astonished that

my pen didn’t leap out of hand and drive itself through my eyeball [see

Michael Howard & Michael Heseltine].

While we’re on the subject of pens the questions cartoonists are most

frequently asked are where they get their ideas from and what materials they

use. Well, my ideas were sitting in front of me, stuffing their faces. The

materials I used were, for the record, 250 gsm Bristol paper, the unforgiving

image put down in black Pelikan indian ink applied with an 850 mapping pen

nib. Although it must be said that this was, on occasion, entirely inadequate.

After all, one would need the palate of the Great Turner properly the capture

the precise hue of Paul Routledge after lunch, but there you go.

As you thumb through the pages of this book, it might help you to have a few

statistics about my subjects. Remember that they come from and represent

several generations of a particular class of Englishman (with the occasional

Scots or Welshman and the even more occasional woman; don’t blame me for

that, blame The System). The people depicted within these covers are,

moreover, the people who’ve moved and shaken this nation over the last sixty

years or more. If you note a certain incestuousness, well, that’s the way it

tends to be. In my commentaries on the sitters, several names will keep

recurring, for which I might apologise, except that it’s really not my fault. I

drew them because they were there. And they’re there, largely, because you

lot let them by continuing to vote for or read them.

Anyway, the average age of the subjects is 63. Their aggregate age is 3477, so

that if they were all laid end to end back through time we’d get back to the age

of the pyramids which was a sobering thought in a place not famous sober

thinking. There are fourteen current or past Cabinet ministers, 13 present or

past editors, many famous faces from TV and journalism, 5 Union General

Secretaries of various vintages, a former Chancellor, a former Deputy Prime

Minister, a current Home Secretary, 2 leading playwrights, one double Oscar

winner and one Mayor of London. [we need to revise this as necessary]

There were some subjects who continued to elude me, however. Alan

Rusbridger is, it’s true, in quarter profile with Charles Clarke, but cancelled

three times to be done full face. Likewise, Peter Mandelson, Ken Clarke and

Nick Brown, among others, all found better things to do at the last minute. We

were promised Tony Blair, but he seemed to be busy. On a more sombre note,

shortly after Barbara Castle’s death John Wrobel received a letter from one of

her staff saying how much she’d been looking forward to being drawn by me

before her final illness made that out of the question, which was both

immensely flattering and rather humbling.

Finally, between going blind and getting pissed, I also worked out a kind of

"Eye Spy" approach to this project, where you could win points for what you

spot. So, a Cabinet minister, past or present, was worth 30 points, government

minister, 20 points, candidate for leadership of your party, 10 points,

successful ditto, 50 points, editor, 20 points per paper, winning an Oscar, 20

points, Most Powerful Man in Britain, 8 points, being a spin Doctor, minus 30,

and so on. There was also a 5 point bonus for any kind of connection with

Tribune. So, while not intending to run through the whole list, it’s worth

noting that Lord Gus MacDonald manages to push his total up to 45 on the

strength of his brief tenure as circulation manager of Tribune, and while it’s a

close run thing for second place between lords Hattersley and Heseltine, the

outright winner, by a mile, on 245 points, is my very good friend Michael

Foot, who was the first to be drawn and appears first in this book, and who has

written a characteristically generous preface.

To him - and to all my victims - my profound thanks, and to you, the reader, I

can only apologise for drawing what I saw and nothing else.

* For the record, the Foreign Secretary in question was George Brown.